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Camping: The Uncomfortable Truth

by on June 25, 2014 6:00 AM

It struck me as I made my way to the bathroom that the journey was roughly the same as it would be if I were using a neighbor's toilet five houses down the street from my own.

The water spigot was about the same distance away in the opposite direction.

The temperature got down to 26 degrees that mid-June night. When it gets that cold at home I close the windows, set the thermostat at 55 and go to bed under a thick blanket. I certainly do not sleep in the backyard.

There were no windows to close, no thermostat to set and no bed to sleep on in Tuolumne Meadows, a high-country campground in Yosemite National Park.

I warmed myself at the fire I'd built, put everything Ursus americanus might sniff out, including toiletries, into a bear-proof box, zipped myself into tent and sleeping bag, and tried to sleep on a blow-up mattress that was slightly wider than my body, knowing that I would have to unzip and rezip in a few hours to heed the call of nature.

A curious activity, this camping.

The modern house is a magnificent human achievement. It protects us from wind and rain. It is plumbed, heated, cooled and electrically lit. It is furnished with beds and upholstered chairs. Screens keep out the little critters. Windows and doors discourage the big critters. Winter and summer, day and night, it is a comfortable environment in which to eat, sleep, work or amuse ourselves.

So what do 40 million of us Americans do with our precious time off? We trade the comforts of home for the discomforts of camping.

We like the fresh air, we say. We like getting back to nature. We like arranging a hospitable little niche for ourselves within an inhospitable environment. We like, when the work's all done, gazing meditatively into a fire.

I suspect we also like the price: The cheapest motel room within striking distance of Yosemite Park goes for $120. A night in a campground costs $20. Wilderness permits are free. Whether you car camp or backpack (we did two nights of each), that's a pretty cheap vacation.

As for the differences between car camping (CC) and backpacking (BP), here are some points of comparison:


BP: Backpackers must balance the desire to eat and sleep well with the knowledge that every concession to comfort and pleasure means additional weight on their back.

CC: You want it -- TV, blender, battery-powered milk foamer, etc. -- bring it.

Advantage, CC.

Human Contact

BP: Yosemite receives more than 4 million visitors per year. Hike a few miles and you can avoid most of them. Once we passed a popular waterfall about three miles from the trailhead, we saw not a soul for 48 hours.

CC: Tuolumne Meadows has about 100 sites. One can hear the thwack of hatchets, the thrum of generators and the whoosh of highway noise. Contact with fellow campers can yield an exchange of tips on good hiking trails. It can also lead to queries about life at Penn State, 30 months into the Sandusky scandal.

Advantage, BP.


BP: Rocks and logs. If you're lucky you'll find a natural backrest or tabletop.

CC: Many sites have picnic tables. The friend who met us at Tuolumne Meadows brought seat cushions. We brought folding chairs for sitting around the fire.

Advantage, CC.


BP: We brought a one-burner stove, about the size of a carafe. On it, we boiled water for coffee, oatmeal, couscous and heating foil packets of Indian food.

CC: Cars can carry ice chests. That means cold beer, steaks, eggs, butter, milk – the works. You can also drive to the store for ice cream. This is why car camping is sometimes referred to as fat camping.

Advantage, CC.

Drinking Water

BP: Potable water is pumped through a filter from the creek. A chore, but not an unpleasant one. You are, after all, sitting on the banks of a gorgeous mountain stream.

CC: Potable water comes from a spigot, but, as I said, the spigot might be "down the block."

Advantage, BP.

Personal Hygiene

BP: A day of hiking leaves one's skin coated with sweat, bug spray and sunscreen. To get it off, I stripped and dunked myself in the creek – for about 20 seconds. (I'm wimpy about frigid water.) Then I gooped up all over again.

CC: Some campgrounds have showers, even hot showers.

Advantage, CC.

Final score: CC 4, BP 2. Car camping is somewhat more comfortable and convenient than backpacking. In the end, though, camping isn't about comfort and convenience, or even cost. Though an entire industry is devoted to designing lighter sleeping pads and tastier MREs, backpackers are willing to sacrifice comfort for the sake of "the wilderness experience," and to feel, at the end of the trip, like they've accomplished something heroic.

They would also like to think that you have to earn your access to nature's greatest glories. That is not always the case, however. Olmsted Point, a turnout on Yosemite's main highway, might offer the most sublime vista on Planet Earth.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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